From the historical monuments to where to eat, from museums and government tours, here are 11 things you should and shouldn't do and see while you are visiting our nation's capital.
There’s a reason Washington, D.C., sees so many visitors every year. Among its amazing offerings are fun, walkable neighborhoods, free museums, outdoor recreation, and, most famously, some of the nation’s most iconic monuments and memorials—not to mention, the U.S. Capitol and White House.
But if you want to make your trip memorable (in a good way), there are some things you just don’t do. Try walking up the left side of a Metro escalator, for example, and you will see a less friendly side of Washingtonians. And never try crossing the street when the President’s motorcade is coming; the Secret Service will come out in full-shouting, defensive force.
With that in mind, here are 11 things you definitely should not do, and when you are through with that, switch over to the things you have to see and do in D.C. Need a place to stay while you’re in town? Check out our hotel recommendations.
IS WASHINGTON, D.C., SAFE?While Washington, D.C., is essentially a safe city, you should always pay attention to your surroundings and be smart. Don’t walk in unknown neighborhoods after dark. Don’t flash your wallet, purse, or iPhone. Plan your route ahead of time. Don’t study your GPS on a street corner—always act as if you know where you’re going.
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Don’t Spend All Your Time on the National Mall
The National Mall hosts 11 Smithsonian museums, the two wings of the National Gallery of Art, plus all of the major memorials and monuments. The danger is that you’ll spend all of your time here because you certainly could and never get bored. But to experience the true D.C.—the D.C. that locals love—you need to get out into the neighborhoods. Go to the theater, catch a concert, eat at a newly Michelin-starred restaurant, go shopping at local boutiques, and go kayaking on the Potomac. And remember that there are other museums as well, including the International Spy Museum, Phillips Collection, National Building Museum, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and the newish Planet Word … whew! Clearly, no matter how many days you have to spend here, it’s not enough.
INSIDER TIPTarget your interests and strategically plan your days.
Don’t Dine at Tourist Traps
D.C.’s booming dining scene makes it a destination unto itself, and with everything from fancy Michelin-starred restaurants to wonderful holes-in-the-wall, why would you go to a tourist trap? Fourteenth Street, Navy Yard, and Eighth Street on Capitol Hill are filled with fun, innovative eateries, or dare to venture into the lesser-known neighborhoods where some interesting things are going on—Thip Khao on 14th Street NW, featuring Lao cuisine and Italian-inspired Red Hen in Brookland are cases in point. There’s also Union Market in NoMa, with its fun-to-browse food stalls, the full-service Bidwell Restaurant, and the nearby Cosecha market featuring Latin American fare. Even the museums have some skin in the game, notably Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Don’t Drive or Take Taxis
D.C. traffic is notoriously bad, and parking is expensive (and parking tickets are even more expensive). Really, with the Metro system reaching most corners of the city (and now Washington Dulles International Airport), there’s no need to drive. You’ll need to buy a plastic SmarTrip card or use the SmarTrip app on your cell phone. Use the card or show the app to both enter and exit the stations. And when riding the escalators, remember to stand on the right and walk on the left; if you don’t abide by this unspoken rule, you will hear Washingtonians muttering unpleasant things under their breath. That said, D.C. is an eminently walkable city—Capitol Hill, the Mall, and Dupont Circle are favorite places to stroll among famous and not-so-famous sites.
Don’t Be Afraid to Cross the Rivers
It’s a running joke that Washingtonians are afraid to cross the rivers. Don’t be like them. Across the Potomac, you can venture into Arlington and watch the changing of the guards at Arlington National Cemetery, admire the U.S Marine Corps War Memorial (aka “the Iwo Jima”), and explore the bustling neighborhoods of Clarendon and Ballston. Colonial Alexandria awaits just downstream, with riverside dining, tons of one-of-a-kind shops, and historic houses to check out. Alexandria was a hotbed of revolutionary action, remember, and Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams all left their imprints there. George Washington’s Mount Vernon sits another 10 miles downstream. Across the Anacostia River, you can visit Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill and learn about the famous abolitionist. And south of that is National Harbor, D.C.’s foray into Vegas-style fun with its casino, outlet stores, and glitzy Gaylord Resort.
INSIDER TIPIt’s cheaper to stay in Northern Virginia than D.C.—and yet you’re still 10 minutes from the National Mall via Metro.
Don’t Skip the National Mall at Night
As dusk sets on the nation’s capital, its famous white-marble monuments glow in the fading light. It will be one of your most memorable moments, guaranteed, to take in the majesty and beauty of the National Mall at night. You can join a guided tour or head out on your own. Don’t worry, the area is perfectly safe, and park rangers are on duty until 10 p.m. Begin at the World War II Memorial, with its fountains aglimmer, and go clockwise, taking in Washington, Martin Luther King, Jefferson, FDR, Korean War Veterans, Lincoln, and Vietnam Veterans.
Don’t Try to Visit Every Museum in One Trip
As we have said, D.C. has a bounty of museums both on and off the Mall, and you could drive yourself bonkers trying to take in everything. You need to have a plan. Even in the larger museums, such as the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of American History, you need to target specific exhibits, or your time will be zapped in one place. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—your time will be well spent. You just won’t see anything else. Assess the interests of your group—U.S. history, art, Native American legacies, natural history, architecture, etc., etc. And remember that whatever you don’t see this time, you’ll just have to catch up on your next trip.
Don’t Visit in the Summertime
Unless seeing the nation’s fireworks on the Fourth of July is on your bucket list, stay away from D.C. in summer. It’s miserably hot and humid, with thunderstorms on many afternoons. Crowds are out in full force, making sightseeing an anxious-ridden experience of long lines and crowded exhibits. Who needs that? If you can swing it, the best time to visit is in the fall through early November, when the weather is generally moderate, and the crowds have dispersed. Springtime is beautiful, of course, with the fabled cherry blossoms and other flowers blooming like crazy, but it’s not as warm as one might expect, and hordes of school groups have arrived. Pick fall!
Don’t Wing It When It Comes to the White House
If you want to visit the White House, don’t think you can just show up, and they’ll let you in. You need to plan ahead. At least 21 days in advance, you must contact your Congressperson to schedule a tour (and you can request one up to three months out). And if you fail to secure a tour, the next best thing to do is stop by the White House Visitor Center, which has extremely well-curated displays and videos about everything you ever wanted to know about the White House, including past presidents’ favorite snacks; what it takes on moving day to move one president out and the next president in (in a matter of hours); and what kind of place settings have been used to serve any visiting royalty. In fact, even if you get a White House tour, stop by the Visitor Center. It’s that good.
Don’t Assume You Know D.C. Just Because You’ve Visited Before
D.C. has changed immensely over the past ten-plus years—and it’s not slowing down. If you haven’t visited in a while, you won’t recognize the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood, including its multi-million-dollar development at the Wharf that includes primo restaurants, music halls, and waterside fun. Neighborhoods where once you would not dare venture—NoMa, Shaw, Columbia Heights, 14th Street, U Street—are hopping with innovative restaurants, local boutiques, theater, music, and cafés. Now you can try craft distilled whiskey, go SUPing on the Potomac, listen to music in a historic Black Broadway theater, taste the latest foodie craze at a pop-up restaurant, and come to understand that D.C. is no longer a one-trick pony (well, two tricks, if you count politics and its Smithsonian museums) but truly a leading global city.
Don’t Forget to Check Out All the Freebies
D.C. may very well be the best city in the world for cultured cheapskates because not only are the Smithsonian museums free, but so are a whole slew of concerts, plays, and exhibits. The Smithsonian American Art Museum routinely showcases world-famous musicians, while free summer concert series are offered at the Capitol Riverfront and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, among others. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has free shows every evening at 6, and its REACH Plaza has free outdoor film screenings and live performances in summer. Even the National Zoo (part of the Smithsonian family) is free. Check out Washington.org for upcoming free events.
I have lived here for 45 years. Most of your tips are spot on. If you spend your day on the mall w kids in tow - most of restaurants listed are a trek. Native American museum has good cafeteria food. National Gallery of art museum cafe also good. Use the hop on/hop off bus when legs are tired as it goes to Arlington. Lots of hotels around National Aiport so likely to find a good rate in advance and it is close by. Or pick a hotel near a metro stop in VA or MD to save time. The waterfront around Nats ballpark is a good restaurant area if you feel like walking a bit.
Is Washington DC Safe? You must be joking (or trying to fool us?). Crime has gone through the roof and become quite brazen, even in popular loactions in mid-day. Car jacking is up 200% (yes evne during the day). Repeated reports of violent attcks against pedestrian just to strip off a nice jacket (and using weapons like guns and knives to ensure you dont want to fight back. You should be forced to recite the current crime statistics in you next pub to warn off travelers. You were supposed to be a "Trusted Guide" for TRAVELERs, not a shill for the DC establishment. Shame on you! You are endangering the very audience you purport to serve with this complete misinformation!
Having lived and worked in the DMV for ten years, I encourage readers of rickroscitt's comments to take those comments with a grain of salt. The comments offer no sources that could be categorize as fact-based. The comments appear to consist of bullet-points currently trending among the alt-right that appear to be designed to convince us the world order is collapsing. The thread - if believed - would compel a sense of dislocation.
Well, I'm located in the DMV (something rickroscitt does not claim to be true for them) and I regard life here as being rich in diversity, strengthened by governmental structures that support the rule of law, and believe my children and grandchildren are thriving here. I use the Metro - both the rail and bus services - I shop the neighborhoods, I go to concerts, and I take my family out to dinner without fear. We live in a dangerous age, made significantly worse by the ubiquity of firearms held by those without training, license, or civic purpose. I have no interest in trying to fool anyone. But speaking truth to libel, I must take issue rickroscitt's unsupported factual claim suggesting that Travelers is a shill for the DC establishment. It is nothing of the sort. But I suspect the rickroscritt type of screed will be replicated wherever and whenever trolls can hope to cast aspersions on solid communities like those found throughout the DMV.